Agonizomai: Jonah 4:1-2 - Blindness and Petulance

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Jonah 4:1-2 - Blindness and Petulance
1-4 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 2 And he prayed to the LORD and said, "I pray thee, LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that thou art a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repentest of evil..."

It seems that Jonah had an excuse after all, before he ran at the outset. He wouldn’t give Nineveh the message because he knew God would be merciful anyway. He was wrong. Jonah's preaching was the ordained means by which God’s mercy was expressed to Nineveh, and by which God brought them to repentance. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God (or the preaching of Christ). {Ro 10:17} Wrong thinking springs from wrong premises. God uses means to achieve His ends. Jonah was off base to begin with.

How if we never preached to anybody because God is a merciful God and will forgive them anyway? We might just as well fold our tents and go home. It’s a shortcut to universalism. God’s mercy is in the preaching. Repent and believe the gospel was the first cry of John the Baptist and the first cry of Jesus Christ.

The big question is, "Why was Jonah really so upset and so angry that God spared Nineveh?" To get to this one must see the message that was given through Jonah which, to remind us, was, "Yet 40 days and Nineveh will be overthrown." - period. The message wasn’t, "Nineveh will be overthrown in 40 days unless they repent."

Now, though in some ways (just like us all) Jonah was a poor excuse for a believer, yet he knew enough not to add to what God had given him to say. He was a true prophet of the Lord and not a false one. He was the bearer of God’s Word, He was responsible for delivering it without distortion, addition or subtraction. I believe he did just that. God told Jonah to go to Nineveh and to cry against it on account of its great wickedness. {see Jon 1:1-2} There was no mention in his commission of calling them to repentance, but only of impending judgment.

It also bears remembering that Jonah fled from the Lord’s command to go and preach there at first. Was his reluctance truly in the thought that God would relent anyway? Or was it found in a hatred for Nineveh, a growing threat to the security of Israel? Did Jonah want to see Nineveh overthrown so that they would cease to be threat to his own nation? It was after only a single generation following this great repentance of Nineveh’s that they themselves overthrew Israel. This seems like a supreme irony.

Yet it is not so ironic. What greater way for God to preach to apostasizing Israel than by the example of Nineveh. Nineveh had none of Israel’s advantages. They were not a part of God’s chosen nation. They weren’t bearers of the covenant signs or trustees of God’s Law. Yet even these people repented and were shown mercy. Yet Israel, so many times turning away from God’s grace, so often despisers of His precepts and commands, had come to within an ace of their own judgment through enslavement to Assyria. 40 more years or so and it would come. This book of Jonah is itself a call to Israel for their own repentance.

And Jonah is the perfect picture of blind Israel. Religious after their own fashion. Obedient when coerced, but rebellious when blessed. Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof. Israel had by this time almost completely externalized religion. It was about nations and victory and wealth and success and worldly peace and prosperity. It was about defeating the enemies of the nation and entering the reign of God. It was about man subduing the world using the name of God for his own ends. It was worldliness in a spiritual cloak. It’s no different today.

Israel had missed the point entirely – had lost the point – that it’s all about a spiritual relationship with God and not about making a way through the world. Our passage through this world is what happens while we are striving to abide in Him. They had the lessons in the very texts they ignored. They knew how God had protected them when they honoured and sought Him, and how their defeats had come about on account of their willful sins. But they were so far from that as a nation that even a prophet like Jonah had a twisted understanding of godliness.

This attitude of Israel is a model of the problems in today’s neo-evangelical churches. Neo-evangelicals have all the right doctrines on paper, just as Israel had all of the laws and precepts of God tucked away in scrolls and tablets – but in practice they ignore or minimize important doctrines of separation and holiness, just as Israel polluted itself by mixing with the nations, their practices, their customs and their gods.

Now do we truly think that Jonah was pouting because he knew God would be gracious and merciful despite the message he had been given to deliver? Was it only that he hoped that God wouldn’t be that way? Was he preaching one thing and hoping for another? Or was he simply preaching from a wrong motive?

Well, Jonah had direct personal experience of the mercy of God towards disobedience when it was repented of. It had happened to him, hadn’t it? He had disobeyed a direct command of the God of his fathers and his country – of the God he knew to be the sovereign Lord of all – and had been spared from a raging ocean, kept in the belly of a fish until he repented, and delivered alive onto dry land after 3 days.

With this experience, you would think that Jonah understood mercy, wouldn’t you? But he still hadn’t grasped the concept that since God has forgiven us so much the we ought to have an attitude of loving forgiveness towards all men – even and especially our enemies. Yet he still thought mercy for him and for Israel was a fine thing, but that mercy for any anybody else was something different. But God says, "I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy..." {Ex 33:19 Ro 9:15}

Now let’s be clear here. God does not show redemptive mercy to all. He shows common grace to all. And His mercies fall upon the just and the unjust alike. But it is entirely up to God to decide how, when and to whom His saving mercy will be shown. Jonah does not teach universal election or universal salvation, or even a universal "offer" of salvation. Jonah teaches that when God decides to be merciful man has no right to question it. It teaches that mercy is the only means by which anyone is saved at all.

My moniker - that's John Hancock to Americans


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